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As a sought-after bassist and leader on the New York jazz scene, Korean-born Jeong Lim Yang is keenly aware of the lofty example set by her forebears in the music. One of these, the great pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, was not only a tireless road warrior with Midwestern territory bands making history in the 1930s (notably Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy), but also an unheralded pioneer of Swing Era big band arranging. She became a mentor to Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and other bebop icons, and a role model for generations to come. One of her most striking works is the 12-movement “Zodiac Suite,” recorded in 1945, and now reinterpreted in spellbinding fashion by Yang and her trio with pianist Santiago Leibsonand drummer Gerald Cleaver on their album Zodiac Suite: Reassured.

“I’m a longtime admirer of Williams’ music,” says Yang, “and ‘Zodiac Suite’ in particular, which holds special value to me as someone really interested in the connection between philosophy and music. I felt an instant connection when I first discovered that record and loved every part of it. The fact that she’s underappreciated thanks to the oppression of racism and sexism became a stronger motivation to pursue the project, so that more people will be aware of her.”

Thankfully, Williams is in excellent company: Dave Douglas, Geri Allen and others have recorded Mary Lou Williams-themed tributes in this century, and Williams is the subject of three biographies to date. With Zodiac Suite: Reassured Yang confidently adds her creative input and expression of esteem for a true heroine of jazz history. Her chief goal, she maintains, was “to capture our interplay as a trio, so that Williams’ compositional voice is present within but also further reaching out through our collective voice.” 

Yang and the trio played a well-received album release event for Zodiac Suite: Reassured at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust in October 2022. Their approach to this material continues to evolve. “Santiago is very intuitive as a performer,” Yang remarks, “and we both had so many arranging ideas in our heads, but we sometimes lacked decisiveness in the process. Gerald saved us many times by sharing his own ideas and became not only our drummer but our band advisor.”

Unlike Williams’ own 1945 Zodiac Suite with bassist Al Casey and drummer Jack Parker, which led off with “Aries,” Yang’s Zodiac Suite: Reassured opens with “Pisces” for the simple reason that the band chemistry is especially strong there. This version, Yang observes, “is very driving and energetic whereas the original is gentle and serene.” From there the movements play out in the original order, and we hear the players’ imagination and technical grasp as they render Williams’ motifs and moods with reverence, even as they take liberties with form, tempo, meter and improvisational elements. The final track, “Madam, Thank You, Madam,” is Yang’s personal homage to Williams, a loosely flowing melody played in unison by piano and drums at first, laying a foundation for Yang’s melodic pizzicato musings out of tempo. Soon all three are soaring together, saying “thank you” in a trio language of their own.

ABOUT THE TRIO:

In addition to her work as a leader (first documented on her 2017 Fresh Sound debut Déjà Vu), Jeong Lim Yang is an in-demand sideperson who has played in groups led by trumpeter Jason Palmer, vibraphonist Yuhan Su and violinst Ernesto Llorens, among others. She is also a member of Oscar Noriega’s Crooked Trio with pianist Marta Sanchez (in which accomplished reedman Noriega plays drums exclusively), and a co-leader of the quartet Mute with Kevin Sun, Christian Li and Dayeon Seok. She is active as an educator at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

Santiago Leibson of Argentina, based in Brooklyn, has five albums as a leader to his credit, and has worked with such artists such as Tony Malaby, Guillermo Klein, Michael Attias, Francisco Mela, Drew Gress, Billy Drummond, Michael Formanek and Cameron Brown. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2019 playing a solo concert of original and classical compositions at the prestigious “Sophia Rossoff Presents” series organized by the Abby Whiteside Foundation. Leibson has taught at New York University and NEMPLA (New School for Latin American Popular Music) and works as piano accompanist at Ballet Hispánico in New York.

Gerald Cleaver is one of the foremost drummer-composers of his generation, leading his own acclaimed bands Violet Hour and Black Host, co-leading Farmers By Nature with William Parker and Craig Taborn, and working extensively with Matthew Shipp, Chris Lightcap, Miroslav Vitous, Jeremy Pelt, Mario Pavone and many more. He recently branched out into the area of solo electronics with the albums Signs and Griots.